How Will You Work When Your Work Has No Place?

As the old industrial capital system erodes and crumbles, a growing class of “artisans of thought” is re-creating where and how we work. Charlie Grantham is back to explore what this means for the future of the workplace.

Image via Death to the Stock Photo.

Image via Death to the Stock Photo.

I suspect that there is no one who reads this magazine who hasn’t at one time or another thought, “What if I lose my job? What would I do? Get a position with another firm or go it on my own?” I’m going to suggest that thinking of a J-O-B is the wrong frame of reference for the 21st century and especially for those whose talent is more creative than manual or analytic in nature.

job1
jäb/ noun : job; plural noun: jobs 1. a paid position of regular employment.

People have talked about the demise of group-organized work (i.e., a job) for some time. Perhaps most prominent was Dan Pink’s book, Free Agent Nation, published back in 2001, up to the most recent book, The Purpose Economy, by Aaron Hurst. The basic message is that people are going to free themselves from the constraints of a formally negotiated contract to trade labor for money. Over the next two decades, as technology takes over most work of today, a new main street community will appear: a distinctly 21st century, highly evolved, and technological version of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

The downturn in the economy (at least in the Western world) from 2008 until the present has fostered an evolutionary new way of looking at what you do to make a living. Perhaps this shift is due to a combination of aging Boomers and Millennials, with an attitude that I spoke about in my last article.

The realization emerging from the fog of consumerism is that there is more to life than the WORK you do. You are not your job. Ariana Huffington’s point is well taken when she says that “people we admire are often people who did not let their jobs define them.” We are moving toward defining our personal purpose, and that drives the activity we engage in to sustain ourselves.

I am fond of saying that a JOB is too small for your spirit. You are more than “earning a livelihood”. As Marx would hold, intellectual talent is now the means of production—and we haven’t adjusted to that truth. We remain optimistic that when people come to realize these realities they have the power to make a choice and move into becoming what I call “artisans of thought”.

Artisans are those in our society who continuously practice creativity and invention. They take what is inside their minds and hearts and give it expression. Usually they are seen as different, unique, and sometimes living on the boundaries of conventional social mores. The problem we have with them is we don’t know what to call them. Because artisans of thought—the transformers among us—don’t have job titles or recognized positions of status and power in today’s world. We don’t, yet, have a language and grammar to talk about them. Think about it. Societal and cultural advances often travel far ahead of contemporary culture. What would you have called an airline pilot in 1650 AD?

What do “artisans of thought” do?

“In a world where advanced degrees in professional disciplines are rapidly becoming a commodity, prosperity belongs to individuals with the ability to react with agility to unpredictable market forces, data, and events.” —Randall Fielding, AIA, from an article in Professional Lighting Design

That’s the textbook definition of artisans of thought in action. They help others react (or hopefully, be proactive) and be more agile. Remember the central purpose—the moral compass, if you will—of these artisans is to apply their abilities and talents to helping others enjoy a better life, experience the world in a more positive way, or bring meaning to where none existed before. Artisans of thought transform ideas into a reality, which can be sensed, experienced, and used by others, who are without the artisan’s viewpoint and skills. Workplace designers fall into this category.

Where do they practice their art?

If you are reading this article, I assume you are curious about where these artisans will be practicing their art. They are already here, although somewhat hidden. Stop thinking of “the office” and “the desk”. Start thinking about cottages and workplace pods.

A typical community center occupied by artisans of thought. Photo courtesy of Betsy Bonnema, WorkUp.com

A typical community center occupied by artisans of thought. Photo courtesy of Betsy Bonnema, WorkUp.com

A typical "work pod" (and the author's workspace). Photo courtesy of Charlie Grantham, design by Adime.com

A typical “work pod” (and the author’s workspace). Photo courtesy of Charlie Grantham, design by Adime.com

How are they unique?

Artisans of thought (AOT from now on) are relatively well educated, have significant practical experience, are well connected, and are focused on their purpose. These are the characteristics which separate them from the workforce in general. Moreover, they are conscious of these characteristics and actively work to improve these qualities.

Another unique feature of AOT is that they not only have formal education, but practical experience. It wasn’t enough for a stonemason in the 15th century to have the requisite technical skills: he had to publicly demonstrate their craft. These people seek out opportunities to “show what they can do”. And like any good artisan, they assemble a portfolio of work. The last distinguishing characteristic of AOT is their personal focus. Being creative, giving something back to the community, or pursuing a career off the “beaten path”, as Thoreau would say, is not always financially rewarding—at least at first.

How do they organize themselves?

Historically workers organize themselves around issues of common interest. They live out the strategy that there is strength in numbers. The prototypical workers organization in the industrial era was the labor union. But that won’t work for AOT. The war for talent is over and talent won. The primary organizing form for AOT will be something akin to medieval guilds. Guilds and “confederations” will return as the primary social organizational model for these smaller groups of people. Guilds will be responsible for recruitment of talent, some training (more like mentoring), and enforcement of process quality standards. Guilds will be based on a common interest in a particular topic area, or expertise such as the Screen Actors Guild.

How do they act upon the world?

AOT operate from a set of shared beliefs. Beliefs about the world, how they know it, and their responsibility for being stewards of the environment. The major shared belief they have is about sustainability, with a capital “S”. AOT are motivated to work with and live among others who have a similar set of worldviews and expectations.

The last way in which AOT operate upon the world is cleverness. They place high value on being clever—out-thinking others, especially those who don’t share their views. Quite simply they delight in the unexpected, have a high tolerance for uncertainty, and see life as a game to be played.

AOT are game changers. That’s their purpose in life. As the old industrial capital system erodes and crumbles, this group is re-creating the world. They are the seeds planted in the soil of community over the past three generations, and they are about to break through.

They are our prophets and hold the destiny of society in their hands. They are the Fourth Turning as winter yields to spring. AOT don’t think about being artisans, they just are. Here are three ways you, too, can become an artisan of thought:

  • Take responsibility for your own destiny. Declare yourself to be an artisan of thought. Your plan is your personal answer to the five parts of this article. Write them down, memorize them, and repeat them often.
  • Realize you don’t need someone else to give you your identity, status, or formal license to do what you need to do. You don’t need a degree, a certificate,or a diploma to be an artisan.
  • Practice, practice, practice your art. Every chance you get, show people what you do, what your passion really is.

Are you ready to make the transition?

This article was originally published on January 7, 2015 as “The Rise of Artisans of Thought”.

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